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A/Prof Ozdemir Sonmez

Ozdemir is an Associate Professor of Urban Planning at Istanbul Commerce University.

Caitlin Morrissey

What is the DNA of Istanbul?


Ozdemir Sonmez

Yeah, right. OK, you remember I ask you also what you mean by DNA, because the rest of your questions, actually, they are analysing, almost analysing DNA of Istanbul. So that's why I thought maybe there is something special. But yeah, I mean, I think that the DNA sequence, I think we can say it's distinctive history, location and geography. As you know, Istanbul's strategically located on the interface between two continents, Europe and Asia, having territories both in Europe and Asia.


It's also a meeting point of Eastern and Western culture since two thousand years now, you can see spatially and socially European, Arabic, Western Asian culture, of course, in this city, probably so being one of the centres of Christianity, starting with Empire Constantine, Istanbul was considered as one of the most important cities of Islamic world after its conquest in 1453 by Ottomans. 

Caitlin Morrissey

And I'd love to hear more about Istanbul's location and its geography and what that does for Istanbul's DNA, what that signifies and what that means and why it's important.


Ozdemir Sonmez

You are right, OK, if you if you look at Istanbuls, different parts of Istanbul, there are actually now four different Istanbuls. One in historical peninsula. I don't know if you have been in Istanbul or not but living in Istanbul and he knows very well. So a historical peninsula, there are mainly two civilisations. They are first, Byzantium, around fifteen hundred years, and Ottoman since 15th century. Until the 1920s, when modern public found. During Ottoman, there are also other minorities around build. They always just north of the historical peninsula, which are Genoveses, especially Genovese merchants, Greeks and Armenians.


In modern Turkey, Istanbul lost its importance for a short period when the capital city moved to Ankara. However, it started growing dramatically after the Second World War and Istanbul faced an accelerated urban expansion and development process, as you know, triggered by rapid population growth naturally and by immigration. So this city has had a critical role because of its strategic location since more than 2000 years, probably it is strategically located on the interface between two continents, Bosporus. And all the more so they are the most distinctive natural channels that the Bosporus, as you know, is a channel connecting Black Sea and Marmara Sea and through Gallipoli to a connection to the Asian Sea and Mediterranean Sea, basically.


So the seas and the lands have divided the lacework geography of Istanbul into four regions, basically all this Istanbul city and Galata in the shores of Golden Horn, and previously different – probably you have seen already, Greg – different villages now United Residential District are located along off the Straits of Bosporus.


So with its history of over 2000 years, Istanbul has become an important commercial centre of its establishment in the strategic locations basically where land meets the sea. Yeah. And now, basically, Istanbul is a quite big and cosmopolitan city, there are socially quite different fabrics. 

Now, as you know, Anatolian Turks, Arabs and now, I don't know, probably more than three million Syrian and Persians, especially wealthy Persians, they rather to come here to live here and also some Europeans. So some of them are here for jobs, some of them are here for freedom and some of them for security, such as Syrians especially. But almost all of them they have chosen here because they find something in the city from their culture.


I mean, Europeans, they find something European, but also Arabs, Middle East, they find something from their culture. So that's why they feel themselves at home, probably. That's why, because I'm sure some of them, they can find much more opportunities in another cities, but, you know, especially the culture, the religious, etc. So that's why they feel at home here. I don't know if it was part of the question.


Greg Clark

Go on.


Ozdemir Sonmez

No, I don't know if it meets your question or not.


Greg Clark

Yes, you've given us three good answers. Let me ask you, if I may, two questions here. So you know much better than I, but I am a great enthusiast for the city that this period of Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul in the first period and then Istanbul since the 1920s, that each of these periods has been very distinctive in the history of the city. But the things that have been common are the location, the bridge between Europe and Asia. Are there other things that have been common? For example, has the city always been a cosmopolitan city? Has it been more or less cosmopolitan? What are the things that are common across this vast history?


Ozdemir Sonmez

Yeah, Actually, time by time it changed according to the policy of the period. Yes, especially the policy. I mean, during Ottoman, it's the policy of the sultans, because sometimes some sultans, they were quite tolerant for the other nations. And sometimes someone not, a bit radical Islam, etc. After 1920s, after the Second World War or during the Second World War, some dramatic things happened, probably because of the economic situation. So there was a belief that the Christian or some minorities there were quite rich, especially Jewish and Armenian. So they tried to get a kind of tax, but not more than normal. It was basically out of equality. So in that time, some of these people, they moved. From Istanbul, from Turkey. And sometimes, for instance, 1955, and during the day, the government of Mandares, he's called Mandares, so in that time also the nationalism was growing. So that's why nationalist movement was a bit dominant, so in that time, also, some of especially Greeks, they got really discharged, so that's why some of them, they left Turkey during that period. But since then I think it's fine. I mean, it's not really – there is not any contradiction, you know, clearly. So that's why I think it is getting more and more cosmopolitan now.


Greg Clark

Mmm. And this was my next question, Ozdemir, when you look at the Istanbullahs today, the people who live in Istanbul today, what do they think about the history of their city? Do they like the fact that it's a city with a great history of two and a half thousand years? How do they feel about that? What part of that history do they relate to?


Ozdemir Sonmez

OK, so actually, everyone has got something to be proud of. So the Islams and, you know, radical Muslims, they are proud because the Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul. So it became an Islamic city and it became a centre of Islam. They are proud. Light people, they are proud. Because in Istanbul, we have a light lifestyle. And we are more close to Europe. In terms of lifestyle, in terms of education, in terms of the economy. So they are proud. And minorities, they are proud because they say, OK, I mean, our grand-grand-grand-grandfathers, they built up the city as a capital of Byzantium. So that's why they are proud of it. So they find somewhere to be proud of.


So that's why any people find something to be proud of in Istanbul. Of course, I don't know, especially about the Syrians, because they are really... So I don't know, because they are some of them, they are trying to survive. Some of them, they are trying to settle down. Some of them, they're not really sure if they are going to stay or not. So actually, I really didn't have a chance to talk to them. But I think in the near future, within my project that I'm doing now, I'll have a chance to talk to them because I'll have some workshops with them to try to have the opportunity to talk to them. So probably I'll be able to understand what they think.


Greg Clark

Mmm, great. Now, with your permission, I have two more questions. Is it OK, Caitlin? Yeah. So Ozdemir, you are a great scholar of the planning and the land uses and the infrastructures in the city.


Ozdemir Sonmez

Thank you.


Greg Clark

How are they shaping the lifestyle of the city? Is there a relationship between the urban design, the land use, the infrastructure and how people live and what they think? How would you describe that? The spatial character of the city?


Ozdemir Sonmez

Actually, some part of the planners and architects, sometimes we get a bit pessimist because I mean a lot of new investment's going on in Turkey, as you know, very big airport just opened one year ago. So new motorways, new bridges. And there is also a project of the government, it's called Canal Istanbul, so it's almost a second canal between Black Sea and Marmara Sea. So all those things, it's pooling the capital from people from Middle East and West Asia and from Russia. They are doing a lot of investment and some of the architecture and some of the projects, they're a bit wild, you know, like Dubai. So that's why, and sometimes destroying the nature of the city around this. So sometimes we get pessimistic. But if you talk to the people, they are very optimistic because they believe Istanbul is going to be – and probably they are right – financially, it's going to be a much more important centre. Logistically, it's going to be a centre of the region. And I think the importance of the city is going to be bigger. So that's why for especially intellectual people, it's not very, very good all the changes, yes, but most of the people, they are very happy, probably, about that.


Greg Clark

OK, so there's a kind of risk there. But I understand what you're saying. Similar story, of course, in Shanghai at the moment.


Ozdemir Sonmez

Yeah.


Greg Clark

Now, my other question is about the relationship between Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, because Istanbul, of course, is a unique city. It's the most westerly point in Turkey and it's partly in Europe and partly in Asia. What is the perspective towards Istanbul of Turkish people who live outside Istanbul or people who live in Izmir or in Ankara or the other cities? What do they think about Istanbul? They think it's too rich and too big, or they think it's a wonderful city and they're very proud of it. What is their perspective?


Ozdemir Sonmez

Actually, actually, both, as you said, as you point out. So it's a wonderful city. Everyone from every corner of Anatolia has to see this city, I mean, they have it somehow – they have in their mind to see the city because it is a wonderful city. According to their father, according to their mother or, you know, according to the books, they need to see, that's what I'm saying. But also it is a bit scary because it's really big and especially Anatolian people, they think that Istanbul is a white city. I mean, nobody cares about the other, but in their city, in their area, in their village, so everyone cares about themselves. But here, no, if you are down, you are dead. So it's a kind of talked about that.


But actually, Istanbul is not. Still I think these relations, these social relations are quite well. I know this because of the earthquake in Marmara region, happened 20 years ago. So, I mean, of course, a lot of help organisations, they help people, but also people help each other. I mean, especially all the relatives, the coast, the others in their home, you know, they lived together one, two months in the same house. So that's why, I mean, the imagination of Istanbul in the people, OK, it's beautiful, but also, it's big and it's wild and it's scary to live in.


Greg Clark

But Ozdemir, there hasn't been – this is a question – any policies by the Turkish government to try to limit the growth of Istanbul or to take away the economic success of Istanbul and put it in other parts of Turkey? You didn't see these policies?


Ozdemir Sonmez

No, actually, it used to be. But since eight years, the policy of government changed. Before, it was like, you know, to limit the expansion or the growth of the city and to direct the investment and the economy to the other parts of Anatolia, we're losing the population but also there the infrastructure is good now, nowadays.


So basically until 2012, where I used to run an office, it was an office. it was Istanbul Metropolitan Planning Centre. So one of the important points of the plan was like that. But since then – in that time, he was the prime minister. Now he's the president, so I think he changed this policy totally because all the new projects, it seems that it will make Istanbul more and more. I mean, growing and growing.


So that's why the policy and I'm sure the 2050 project group, they have the previous policy, what I said, but now, central government and municipality of Istanbul, they are from different parties and the power is mostly in the central government. So that's why central government makes all the big investments such as airports, you know, channels, motorways, etcetera, new, and around the channel there are a lot of new residential and commercial zones planning. So that's why it seems to me that it's going to grow up.


Greg Clark

Very interesting. And, you know, we saw something like this in Shanghai and Sao Paolo, very, very similar approach. And I'll go back to Caitlin now for some more questions from her, Ozdemir.


Caitlin Morrissey

I'd like to ask you about leaders in Istanbul that stand out as having shaped the city. Is there anybody that comes to mind?


Ozdemir Sonmez

I think Badruddin Dahlan, who was the mayor of Istanbul starting 1982. And around eight years, Istanbul, so under Dahlan's leadership, the city has been dogged with new roads, new boulevards, parking garage, streets, and streets have been widened and tracks are being laid for a new rail tram system to ferry thousands of workers 15 miles from central Istanbul to a new industrial suburb in Istanbul. So perhaps the most ambitious project in that time now, if you look at from now.


So it was of course, it's not very big comparing the investment now, but in that time, it was quite big projects. So in one of the important projects to clean up the Golden Horn, because Golden Horn was a really, really dirty place because of the way that the industry just surrounded. I mean, around Golden Horn. So he cleaned up and he cleaned up also the sea. So that was one of his aims. He was always mentioning this oft-quoted pledge is "to make the waters of Golden Horn as blue as my eyes", because he had blue eyes. So that's a very well-known sentence of him.


So but in the meantime, by city estimates, bulldozers have razed six thousand buildings along the edge of the Golden Horn Inlet, and most of them were factories and illegal slaughterhouses whose influence had seriously polluted the water for decades. And most have been replaced by parks and playgrounds.


Caitlin Morrissey

And now a second question I have is, what are Istanbul's greatest inventions or discoveries? It has such a long history.


Ozdemir Sonmez

Yeah. The most important invention, according to the history, according to the researchers, we were taught that Istanbul was about two thousand five hundred years old, but probably about 10 years ago or 15 years ago, during an excavation for Metro, we found out that actually Istanbul is eight thousand years old, because they found that ancient harbour in Yenikapi, Marmara Sea. So that was actually a big issue for us. It was a big invention for Istanbul. Um. Hold on, how was it?


So we will probably never know whether its location between Asia and Europe was a staging point for the Neandertals and the later hunters, gatherers and farmers who may have been the source of the Indo-European languages we see today in Europe and seem to have spread west through Anatolia.


Greg Clark

Ozdemir, if I may, I read recently The History of Istanbul, written by Bettany Hughes. Did you see this book? It's er, where is it? I think I lent it to you, Caitlin, didn't I?


Caitlin Morrissey

It's in my dining-room!


Ozdemir Sonmez

What was the name?


Greg Clark

The name of the lady is Bettany Hughes. She is a Doctor of Urban History, but she wrote a good book about Istanbul. A couple of things she identified as Inventions of Istanbul. One is fireworks. I didn't know this. And another one is the passport. The first place to have a passport? Does this ring any bells with you?


Ozdemir Sonmez

Actually, yes, I think these fireworks, but I didn't know they had it. But I will have this book as soon as possible and I will read it. It seems very interesting.


Greg Clark

It's a very big book, but it's a good read. So I just wondered because the history of the passport, I will check because it's something to be – you could imagine Byzantium creating the passport. But let's see. We'll go back to Caitlin's questions.


Ozdemir Sonmez

All right. All right.


Caitlin Morrissey

So we have just around ten minutes left, and I have three questions in my mind. The first is about the myths that unite people from Istanbul and the stories that they tell that everybody knows, everybody speaks about.


And the next question will be about misconceptions or things that people think about Istanbul, that might not be true. Let's start with myths. Are there any?


Ozdemir Sonmez

All right, OK, OK. Misconceptions, you know, probably I can say that anyway, I've been in in England, in Newcastle University, so during that period, I noticed that some people who hadn't been in Istanbul or in Turkey were saying that, OK, Istanbul must be a very dangerous place and very you know, it must be dangerous for especially foreigners and, you know, but I think it was wrong because a couple of my friends, they came to Istanbul, they had been in Istanbul. And I just asked their observation, their idea. But they said completely it wasn't, because it was not dangerous at all, because they have been every part of Istanbul.


So it's not like Rio de Janeiro, because in Rio de Janeiro, yeah, there are two parts, one in the centre. It's quite normal life going on. But the other one, it's in the favela. When you go there, so you are really in danger. But here there is not such a place. I mean, there are some illegal houses, not like favela. We don't have such residential zones. But wherever you go, it's not dangerous. It's safe.


Caitlin Morrissey

And one of my final questions is about any shocks or traumas that Istanbul has faced, whether there's a positive or negative and what it has learned or how these have shaped the city.


Ozdemir Sonmez

Oh, right. OK. OK, so. And one of the shocks in Istanbul, I think, was observed especially after the 1999 Marmara earthquake in which about 20000 people died. And about 50 thousand people were injured. After the earthquake, many national and international aid conducted works in the area, and many governmental and non-governmental organisations worked for the rehabilitation and treatment of survivors, survivors, but especially people as I said before. And they had each other, because I was here in that time. And they hosted each other so and then they recover. But since then, physically, they are – I mean, we are trying to rebuild the city, especially the illegal houses. We are trying to rebuild and to make it safer. So I think one of the shocks was the earthquake. Yes, I can see.


Caitlin Morrissey

And what does the future hold for Istanbul, given everything that we've spoken about? What traits will be important in the coming years, whether – obviously the future is not decided, but what do you see as being important to the city in the future?


Ozdemir Sonmez

I think the economic transformation. I can say economic transformation of Istanbul has stimulated a growth of population in Turkey and a huge increase of urbanisation as in any country during development. So if this kind of transformation develops too fast, the risk of failure increases from diverse aspects regarding infrastructure. It is of great importance for Istanbul that it is well functioning. If this substructure isn't developed enough, Turkey will not be able to do further economic progress, especially some – some economists underline this. So the heavy traffic in Istanbul will also become more and more a problem, with a huge population in a city, the demand of expanded subway system, roads and other ways of commuters to travel grows, of course. And as you know, as I mentioned before, large investments such as new bridges, airports, canals, highways still continue in Istanbul. I think this is going to shape and this is going to draw the destiny of Istanbul.


Caitlin Morrissey

Yeah, it's a fantastic answer. We have to jump off in a couple of minutes. But there is one last question, which is that if we'd have asked you the right question, would there have been anything else you want to say about the DNA of Istanbul? 


Ozdemir Sonmez

Um, probably. I mean, I can say that this economy, you know, the development, everything can be everywhere, I mean, in Shanghai, in Malaysia, in Dubai, everywhere, but I think the most important thing to the history of a human, you know, to preserve and to carry for the next generations. So that's why Istanbul is one of the most important cities.


I mean, OK, we see some evidence from eight thousand years, but also, we have some really concrete heritages from Roman, from Byzantine, from Ottoman. So I think this is what I believe it is very distinctive and has to be preserved for the humanity, not for Turkish people. I mean, for the humanity.

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